Occitan vodka: Representing the local, looking to the future
[En occitan: çai-sota la traduccion per J. Còsta]
There are a number of places where one might not be (as) surprised to come across a few words in Occitan in the recently created region of Occitania: on street signs in the historic centres of tourist cities and towns, perhaps on the labels of certain wines from Gaillac or Jurançon, or in the announcements made on the metro in Toulouse, the capital of the region. The packaging of a bottle of vodka, however, might represent a less expected site for a language that remains notably underrepresented in the commercial sphere. But the labels of not only vodka, but also gin, single malt, and rum, are exactly where Occitan is prominently featured in the names of spirits produced by Benoît Garcia at BOWS (Brave Occitan Wild Spirit) Distillerie in Montauban.
When I met with Benoît at the distillery, he linked his use of Occitan on his products to both his own and his company’s local roots. Originally from the department of Hérault, he explained that he identified as Occitan and adored Occitania, and thus it was natural for him to want his products to reflect this local rootedness. While he described the Occitan that he had learned in school as rusty, he had chosen to give all of his products Occitan names to reflect the story behind them, whether they reference the local botanicals that go into the gin or nod to a film made in Montauban in the 1950s. This recourse to Occitan to represent localness, however, was not presented as an element of simple nostalgia; rather, Benoît related this emphasis on the local to the importance of developing and promoting short supply chains and sustainable circular economies that minimise waste, maximise the potential of resources, and bring producers and consumers into more direct relations. He spoke passionately of how people today often fail to recognise the richness of their local areas, searching further afield for ingredients and products that are – or could be, with a little initiative – found in their own backyards. Benoît’s distillery is indeed located in his backyard, from which he could point to the neighbouring farms where he buys his barley and to the nearby mountains where he gathered botanicals (or Bandarel ‘plantes sauvages en occitan’ [wild plants in Occitan]’, as indicated by the label of his gin bearing this name). The pride in his local roots indexed by the Occitan names of his products was thus intimately bound up in his active efforts to develop a socially conscious, environmentally sustainable enterprise that helped to support local economies in Occitania.
These efforts to highlight the localness of his products and methods of production, however, did not go unchallenged. Benoît recounted how colleagues at industry events had questioned his use of Occitan on his labels, warning him that it would limit his products’ appeal to consumers within the region of Occitania. While these cynical concerns had proved unfounded, Benoît did note that he had to explain the Occitan on his labels every time he presented his products: in France he had to explain the meaning behind the names, and in Spain and England this explanation usually had to be preceded by an introduction to the Occitan language. He remained determined in his use of Occitan and his willingness to explain it though, as it spoke to his own heritage and to the vision he has both for his distillery and for the continued growth of alternative models of production and consumption.
Rather than merely indexing a longing for a past way of life, the presence of Occitan on his bottles was thus articulated with a concern for the on-going development and increased visibility of social economies that prioritise sustainability, local production, and the maintenance of rural life. As suggested by the name of his single malt, Venidor (‘future’ in Occitan), Benoît Garcia’s engagement with Occitan was intertwined with an effort to draw on local resources – from the agricultural to the linguistic – in working towards a better future for Occitania.
La traduccion occitana de Jaume